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posted: 5/13/2020 1:00 AM

Now’s the time to rely on economic development professionals

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  • BRYAN GAY

    BRYAN GAY

 

As an economic development professional, I'm constantly touting the need for a strong and active economic development office in every community.

In the best of times, economic development professionals are there to be the data nerds; we're working in the background to share with the world the data that makes our communities so special. We're coaches; we're spending nights and weekends building game plans with our small business owners to strengthen their marketing and business plans, because we work within their spare time to focus on growing their businesses. We're cheerleaders; we're talking up the new development in the Downtown, and in the next meeting we're with our business executives brainstorming resources to support their workforce expansions. And in our free time, we're advocates. We're meeting with State and local officials on behalf of our community and advocating for business friendly policies that lack an excess of bureaucratic red tape.

Now here we are, staring at an almost instant 5% decrease in GDP and millions of Americans filing for unemployment in the eye. With more trouble in view on the road ahead, economic development professionals are going to be more important than ever.

The last time we faced anything like this was during the "Great Recession." Unfortunately, during that recession many municipalities throughout the Chicagoland area, and across the U.S., saw an opportunity to consolidate. By laying off their economic development staff, they were able to maintain a level of services and were better able to weather the storm. The problem is, in many cases, those lost professionals were never replaced. And those temporary cost-cutting measures became permanent employee reductions and the loss of a voice for businesses in the community.

Economic development professionals may not be the most visible community contributors, but we are constantly working behind the scenes to ensure that businesses in our municipality are sufficiently supported. For instance, my staff, on average, have been making and receiving 50-100 phone calls a week to our businesses during this COVID-19 pandemic. In most cases we've been alerting them about the variety of resources that are available. When the state's Hospitality Grant Program was closing, we contacted 150 plus businesses to ensure they had applied. When the SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program posted, we fielded 50 calls on just the first day. Businesses know they can turn to and trust the Invest Aurora team when they need assistance.

I encourage municipalities to not only retain their economic development staff during these troubling times, but recommend doubling down on their efforts and hiring more economic development professionals.

Now, my staff is the lead agency for the City of Aurora's "Standing Together with Aurora Businesses Local Emergency" (STABLE) Fund program. Invest Aurora will administer funds to business owners who need financial assistance to retain or expand their low to moderate employee base. Small businesses can learn more by visiting Investaurora.org/StableFund/. We're rethinking our programs; adapting them to the current conditions and focusing on funneling much needed funds into our small businesses. We lucky to be partner in a City that trusts us and allows us to be so uniquely responsive to our community's needs.

I hope communities across Illinois will continue to trust and invest in their economic development staff. We may not be able to make things better right now, but trust that we can keep them from getting worse. Remember, keep planning ahead. Look past the next 6 to 12 months and starting planning now for the turn around. This pandemic will eventually end, and we'll get back to our new normal, whatever that may be. Those that start preparing now will be that much more ready when we reach that point.

•Bryan Gay is president & CEO of Invest Aurora. Contact him at bryan@investaurora.org